Q&A: Mia Laufer and Orin Zahra

Jacob Henricus Maris, A Town in Holland, 19th century. Oil on canvas, 15 x 23 1/2". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905.

Jacob Henricus Maris, A Town in Holland, 19th century. Oil on canvas, 15 x 23 1/2″. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905.

Allison Fricke: Where did your idea for the exhibition Inside the Palace of Fine Arts: Cosmopolitanism at the 1904 World’s Fair come from?

Mia Laufer: When the call went out for the Teaching Gallery, as they do every year, Kate [Butler] said specifically that [the Kemper] wanted this to relate to the 250th anniversary of St. Louis, possibly something about the fair.  Kim [Broker] very generously did a lot of research on what objects might in some way have been at the Fair.  It was an extensive list, and on it were a lot of European paintings and a lot of Greek vases.

Orin Zahra:  Mia and I are both French modernists – we work on European paintings, not Greek vases – so it was a natural choice to focus on the European paintings.

Ml: Once we decided to do that, we noticed that they were all from the loan exhibition. So it made sense to hone in on that part of the fair and ask questions about that.

AF: For those of us who are less familiar with the 1904 World’s Fair, how does the loan exhibition differ from other exhibitions at the fair?

OZ: The loan exhibition consists of works that were lent by particular collectors. Because we were focusing on the US Pavilion, this exhibition should have included lots of American artworks, but actually included lots and lots of European painting. That’s what was so interesting to us: why were there so many European paintings and so few American paintings in this section of a nationalist pavilion?  So we ended up focusing on how the collectors highlighted in this loan exhibition were collecting European artworks.  The exhibition looks at why we think that was and what kind of image the collectors were trying to project.

AF: So what image were they trying to project?

OZ: [laughs] Say it Mia! Our favorite words!

ML: We came to the conclusion that they were trying to present themselves as very conservative and very cosmopolitan.  When we were writing the essay, we kept on coming back to those words and grew to hate them and we kept trying to find any synonym!

OZ: That is the last time we’re saying those words!

ML: Ever!  [laughs]  But they were trying to present themselves as very knowledgeable about what was going on in Europe and very sophisticated and cultured.

OZ: It seems really paradoxical that on the one hand we’re calling them cosmopolitan and on the other hand we’re calling them conservative.  The cosmopolitan part comes from them trying to show that they were just as knowledgeable about art as European collectors or collectors from other countries.  The conservative part comes from the kind of artwork they were collecting and displaying, which were artworks that were very much established by the 1904 World’s Fair – mid 19th and early 19th century and even before that.  It seems counter-intuitive, but that’s how we’re looking at it.

This painting exemplifies the Barbizon school of painting.  Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena, Wood Interior, 1867.

This painting exemplifies the Barbizon school of painting. Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña, Wood Interior, 1867. Oil on canvas, 43 1/4 x 51 1/2”. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905.

AF: Can you expand a little bit on these terms: conservative and cosmopolitan?

OZ: The kinds of artworks we’re showing in our exhibition are more established – like Barbizon paintings.  Barbizon paintings are very mid-19th century and when the early 20th century came around, they were fully accepted into the cannon.  These collectors were not showing French symbolists or Fauvists, for example, who were on the rise at that time.  They were showing works like Barbizon, or slightly more Impressionist works, or [Frederic Edwin] Church, who was part of the Hudson River School. Those are much earlier 19th century works so that’s what brings the conservative element to it.  The cosmopolitan element is the fact that they were participating in the World’s Fair, which is this international event.  So they were showing America as a part of this international stage and they were showing that they knew a lot about art because they were collecting, displaying, buying, and lending it.

ML: Very specifically, they were buying things that were seen at that time as the best art. They’re involved in this international art trade, and they’re also knowledgeable about which were the best artworks.

OZ:  So we’re not trying to say that they were so naïve collecting these things there were very out of date – they were intentionally collecting these things and displaying them.

AF: That’s something I was curious about – you mentioned in your talk on May 12th that Halsey C. Ives curated the loan exhibition.  He was also director of the St. Louis Museum & School of Fine Arts (predecessor to the Kemper Art Museum) and organized a portion of the Chicago Columbian Exposition.

Orin: Yes, he was director of the department of art for both the Chicago and St. Louis World’s Fairs.

AF: So given his expertise, he knew what he was doing including these very conservative artworks in the world’s fair…

OZ: I think it’s our mindset now that if you’re collecting you should be collecting the cutting edge, radical, avant-garde artwork.  Somebody came up to us after the talk on May 12th and asked “Why didn’t these collectors collect some decent work?” These Midwestern collectors were intentionally collecting this artwork.

ML: In our 21st century perspective, what they’re doing appears conservative, but they probably wouldn’t have called it that.

OZ: And they certainly wouldn’t have seen it negatively.

During a gallery talk on May 12th, Orin refers to two paintings now on view in the exhibition Inside the Palace of Fine Arts: Cosmopolitanism at the 1904 World's Fair.

During a gallery talk on May 12, Orin refers to two paintings now on view in the exhibition Inside the Palace of Fine Arts: Cosmopolitanism at the 1904 World’s Fair.

ML: Right, it’s sort of like if someone collecting today acquires Picasso or Matisse rather than an up and coming artist right now.  They’re focusing on these artists because they’re established.  Picasso is the real deal, he’s sticking around.  If you want to show that you are a really amazing art collector, you have a Picasso in your dining room and everyone who passes through sees it. That’s one of the things we were wrestling with: the best word to describe what they’re doing is to call it kind of conservative, but there are so many weird connotations to all of the words that we’re using that it can be kind of misleading.

OZ: We just have to try to strip away all of the 21st century ideology that we attach to these words and think about how they would have viewed this, which is not necessarily in a bad way.   If they were established in France this is not a negative thing – French culture was considered the peak of culture at the time and emulating that was not necessarily negative.

AF: The official title of the 1904 World’s Fair was actually the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.  How did the historic purchase of the Louisiana Territory inform choices made in the curation of the loan exhibition and the fair more generally?

OZ: I just read an article recently about a member of the Washington University community who was advocating to have a fair in St. Louis to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.  The one in Chicago, called the Columbian Exposition, was really celebrating Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America.  So this person argued that the Louisiana Purchase was just as important and we should host the fair in St. Louis (also because it would also bring lots of commerce).  So it was really important.

ML: The fair was supposed to take place in 1903 as a centennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but was postponed to 1904.  In the exhibition space of the Palace of Fine Arts in the US Pavilion, there were three sections.  We’re focusing on the loan exhibition and there was a second section that was contemporary, which we can bypass, and the third was a retrospective exhibition, which was American art from the past 100 years.  So they’re really showing how art evolved from the Louisiana Purchase to the present day. A lot of the exhibition choices were based on the idea that the Louisiana Purchase was a culminating moment.

OZ: We recently found out that the overall layout of the fair placed the French Pavilion on one side and the US pavilion on the other as a symbolic trajectory of going from France to America or you could think of it as America looking to France.  Either way, you have that dialogue between France and America that was the result of the Louisiana Purchase.

AF:  You’ve obviously learned a lot from your research, so I wonder if you might share one thing that you found really surprising or interesting.

OZ: I think maybe I did expect more contemporaneous art to be collected and shown.  The reason we were struggling with it was we couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t more 20th century art and why there was so much older art.

Paul Jean Clays, On the Schledt, 1874. Oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 43 1/2". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Subscription Fund, 1897.

Paul Jean Clays, On the Schledt, 1874. Oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 43 1/2″. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Subscription Fund, 1897.

ML: I don’t think we’d thought about it too much beforehand, but a pleasant discovery along the way was how much material there is in St. Louis on the World’s Fair: in the Wash U archives, the Missouri History Museum, books at the St. Louis Art Museum library.  And how much excitement (in the days and weeks leading up to our talk on May 12) there was about the fair.  We weren’t expecting that. We got emails from people in the Society for the 1904 World’s Fair, or someone teaching a class on the fair.  Several people emailed us asking for our exhibition checklist.  That support is wonderful since we’ve been working on this for so long.

OZ: Going along with that, we went to the special collections on West Campus and we saw a lot of memorabilia from the time, which was so much fun.  Somebody had collected a book of stamps, we discovered that Dr. Pepper was introduced at the World’s Fair, and ice cream cones were invented.  Random little tidbits were fun to read about.

ML:  And also the way the memory of the fair has been preserved in St. Louis.  We saw this wonderful little film made in the 70s about the fair.  There were interviews with these elderly people who went to the fair when they were 7 years old and they still remembered it.   It’s been wonderful looking into this really cherished moment in St. Louis history in St. Louis where it’s still so near and dear to so many people.

By Allison Fricke (Thursday, May 22, 2014)

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